It’s school vacation week, but instead of going to the Cape for the day, the Gonzalez-DeJesus family sat in their Watertown home as one of the biggest manhunts in Massachusetts history took place just beyond their doorstep.
Police and camouflaged military personnel patrolled the streets, helicopters roared overhead, and sirens wailed in the distance as Catalina Gonzalez and her two daughters, ages 8 and 11, played on the living room floor with a pet guinea pig. It felt like their home had been transported into a war zone.
“They’re a little scared, a little confused,” Gonzalez said. “It’s different seeing all this unfold on TV, and then suddenly having it in your backyard.”
Families across Greater Boston hunkered down with their children Friday after Boston and a half-dozen communities urged residents to stay at home and lock their doors. Many more will return from school vacations this weekend only to grapple with how to explain the events of the past week — the sudden and deadly bursts of violence — to their children.
Child development specialists said strategies for helping children cope vary with age, but urged parents to talk with their kids about the crisis in broad strokes, even if they could not fully comprehend it themselves.
Children need to know “we’re going to be OK, and there are people protecting us,” said Elana November, a child psychologist in Newton who was housebound with her two young children Friday. “They need to know Massachusetts has shut down so that we can all be safe.”
When news of the manhunt erupted, November said she closed all the blinds in her home and kept her children occupied in the basement and second floor — away from ground-floor windows — worried that anything could happen. After working with school-age children in New York City in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as a psychologist in training, she said children benefit from information, but in limited doses.
She didn’t tell her own very young children anything about Friday’s manhunt. Both she and her husband were distracted and distraught after Monday’s explosion at the Boston Marathon, she said, so she waited a day and told her children that there had been an accident on the finish line.
She added that allowing children to watch television coverage of the event is not helpful “in any way.” Videos are a good distraction, allowing parents to watch the news in another room or online.
“With things like Newtown and the explosion in Texas and all these things happening, there’s so much it’s hard to shield our kids from reality,” she said. “I’m a firm believer that what kids really want is to know adults are going to keep them safe.”
Jeri Robinson, vice president for educational and family learning at the Boston Children’s Museum, said the museum usually hosts as many as 25,000 children during school vacation week, one of its busiest weeks of the year.
She said it can be stressful for children to be home with their parents during a week when normalcy already seems disrupted. Shielding children from the horrors of the past week can be difficult for some parents who may be struggling to cope with the news themselves.
“Parents need to be as calm and honest with kids as possible without scaring them,” she said. “Remind the children that police are helpers.”
That’s exactly what Cataline Gonzalez was doing in Watertown Friday, but it had been a long week of difficult explanations. A trip on Wednesday to Castle Island with her daughters and their friends meant to lighten their spirits grew heavy when their minivan passed the federal courthouse as it was being evacuated due to a bomb threat.
In addition, the family is caring for a friend’s dog because she was at the Marathon near the finish line and needed to leave town after being traumatized by the explosion.
Both Gonzalez’s daughters — Jaylene, 11, and Kailee, 8 — seemed to be coping well, though their moods were more serious and somber than usual. Gonzalez said she has talked with them, emphasizing how police, doctors, and medics have helped.
“They’re on April vacation,” she added. “They’re kids and should be enjoying themselves.”